|Photo by Edward Sheriff Curtis of Nez Perce Dugout Canoe
A couple of summers ago Allen Pinkham Jr. was here at the Josephy Center teaching workshops. He did a few days of beading and a few making drums with a handful of people interested in the crafts and the Nez Perce Indians who had developed them. At the end of his stay, Allen told me that “We Nez Perce were canoe people you know. I’d like to come back here and carve a dugout canoe.”
That conversation sent me on a journey that landed enough grant funds to bring Allen back—in fact, he’s due in tonight with his father and with Bob Chenoweth from the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho. Bob’s made a study of historic Nez Perce canoes— there are only a handful in existence, and the park has four of them—and will do a program based on his research. Allen Sr. will chip in with stories of canoes and Nez Perce traditions.
Without stealing any of their thunder, I’ll say that that initial conversation with Allen and subsequent talks, reading, and thinking have me looking at regional history in different ways. I asked Allen Sr. one time if you stopped someone in downtown Lewiston and asked him or her what two words they associated with Nez Perce, what would they say. “The War and horses,” we almost answered my question together.
Water was here before the horse (which the Nez Perce didn’t get until about 1730), and Indians were using canoes on rivers and lakes well after the advent of the horse. Think about it. Lewis and Clark traveled a good share of their miles by water—rafts on the Missouri; and the Nez Perce helped them build canoes that took them to the sea. In the Journals, they note few horses and many canoes on the Columbia.
David Thompson and the fur traders would pack trade goods on boats and horses, moving from one to the other with the terrain, building new canoes, trading canoes for horses, and on and on. Locally, it’s obvious that historically, traveling the length of Wallowa Lake would have been a lot easier by water than horseback.
On the other end of the scale, Dr. Loren Davis, an archeologist from Oregon State University, told a recent audience at Wallowology next door that the first immigrants to the Americas probably came by sea, bouncing along the Pacific Shore to the tip of South America. That, and not the land bridge (the times of newer finds are pushing that date back and taking their toll on land bridge theory) is how the Americas were populated as extensively and widely as we now know they were.
Stories go on. This week’s local paper heralds the return of coho salmon to the Lostine River and the Grande Ronde Basin. Similar efforts by Nez Perce Fisheries, and by the Yakima Nation and the Umatilla have reinforced or reintroduced salmon populations across the region. Aaron Penny, a Nez Perce Fisheries worker and tribal member, says that the losses of fish over the last 100 years were like “losing your soul.”
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation Natural Resources Department has a program called “first foods.” The tenant of the program is that if we take care of our foods in the way they are served in the longhouse, we’ll have a healthier environment and healthier bodies. And it all, of course, starts with water. Without clear, healthy water there are no salmon, and then no deer and the other four-leggeds and two leggeds that comprised traditional diet. And without clean and good rain there would be no strong roots and abundant huckleberries to finish the longhouse meal.
The biggest and most important water battle fought by tribes in the past 100 years was probably the fight on Northwest Rivers that led to the Boldt Decision and the determination that half the catch belonged to Indians. For their part, the Indians are restoring habitat and doing all they can with mitigation money to increase the size of that catch.
And simultaneously, from coastal tribes in Washington to these Nez Perce in their traditional Wallowa Homeland, Indians are building canoes again, reclaiming cultural heritage, showing the world that the water has always been and is still primal.
I’m tempted to go on, and tie it all to Standing Rock. But water is water everywhere, and you can do that.